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Salem's Lot (2004)
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by Mel Valentin

"Stick with Tobe Hooper's original interpretation of King's novel."
3 stars

Scripted by Peter Filardi ("Flatliners," "The Craft"), and directed by Mikael Solomon, the TNT adaptation of "Salem's Lot," Stephen King's second published novel about a vampire plague infecting a small New England town, has better production values and (mostly) better effects than the original, deliberately-paced 1979 adaptation directed by Tobe Hooper ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre") and starring David Soul and James Mason, but little of the claustrophobic menace and existential dread that permeated the first interpretation of King's novel. This version of "Salem's Lot" suffers from several structural problems that can be traced to Filardiís flawed screenplay.

Let's start with the interminable voice-over narration that introduces the characters (repeated at the beginning of part II). The narration could be described as banal at best and at worst as cringe-inducing at worst (e.g., the phrase "morose, mindless, moronic evilÖ" lifted from Stephen King's novel; proving, as if proof were needed, that King has written his share of clunkers in almost forty years writing fiction). Why not rely on visual composition, parallel action, and character interaction to introduce the characters? Stephen Kingís novel didnít contain voice-over narration. The written word and cinema are two different mediums. Writers should write to the medium's (visual) strengths, not its weaknesses. Spoon-feeding exposition through the over-use of voice-over narration is a perfect example of how not to write for a visual medium.

Moving on, the "present-day" prologue and epilogue that frame Salem's Lot should have been eliminated altogether. Using flashbacks to frame events tends to diminish or eliminate dramatic tension (since the audience knows, at minimum, the main character retelling the story has survived). The voice-over narration is also repeated when Ben Mears (Rob Lowe, miscast) recollects a childhood memory involving the Marsten House (Rob Lowe's awkward line readings don't help the admittedly weak material). The director, Mikael Solomon makes an inexplicably awkward, risible decision here, using color tints and digital filters to distinguish the flashback-within-a-flashback.

Unfortunately, Solomon had limited effects budget and it shows in the unconvincing CGI. Note to producers: if the budget only allows for inexpensive CGI, it's best to find workarounds (e.g., a scene inside a prison involving a narrow ventilation shaft and a highly disturbed character). After all, the 1979 adaptation was made in the pre-digital era, so why not employ traditional special effects? In addition, the vampire makeup fails to impress (or terrify). Pale skin, bright eyes, and fangs? Was that all the makeup effects department could come up with? After the more inspired versions of vampires seen on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, traditional vampire makeup will no longer have the intended impact on knowing audiences.

In addition, horror flicks depend on uninterrupted audience immersion for their visceral and emotional impact. As a result, horror flicks don't and canít work on basic cable/network television due to constant commercial interruptions. Stopping or suspending the miniseries every 15 minutes for a three and a half-minute commercial break disrupts any narrative buildup or dramatic tension. Constantly being reminded of products that, if purchased, will improve your psychological and physical well being, can only distract from participating in the story or from feeling any sympathy with the characters. Limited commercial interruption was the better way to go here.

Last, rather than building to a crescendo where the forces of antagonism are at their greatest and the plot complications for the survivors at the most dire, Salem's Lot does the opposite. Ben finds Barlow far too easily. Not content to end the mini-series with the resolution of the central conflict, Salem's Lot then meanders through an uneventful escape through the town. Illogically, the vampires are no longer fast moving (as in earlier scenes), but instead linger in intersections like zombies (to be more easily run over by Ben's car). The implication might be that without Barlow, their powers are somehow diminished. If that implication is correct, it apparently doesn't hold for one of the other lead characters, who've already been turned into a vampire, but who retains her powers after Barlow's demise. Ben's escape leads us back to the beginning and the hospital where Ben has been recounting his version of the events to a physician and a return of Ben's voice-over narration, awkwardly delivered by Rob Lowe.

Salem's Lot does have some positives, e.g., the production/art design, cinematography (not exactly a surprise, since Salem's Lot's director is a long-time cinematographer with credits on several big-budget, high-profile feature films, i.e., Far and Away, Backdraft, The Abyss). The best set piece in the first part centers on two boys lost in the woods at night, tracked by an unseen force. Outside of that early sequence, I felt nothing for the characters or their situations during the first part of the mini-series. That barely changed in the second half, where Rutger Hauer as Kurt Barlow reemerges (he's in all of one in scene in the first segment) late in the second half. His second appearance, meant to instill fear and terror in the audience, is once again misjudged: in one key scene, Barlow bursts through a kitchen window, only to crawl on the ceiling and down a wall. Fear? No. Laughter? Absolutely. Not to mention we've already seen wall-crawling vampires before and done far more effectively (e.g., the Reapers found in Guillermo del Toro's Blade 2).

Production values aside, the original TV-miniseries with David Soul (as Ben Mears), James Mason (as Richard Straker), Lance Kerwin (as Matt Pierce), and Bonnie Bedelia (as Susan Norton) remains the definitive version. Twenty-five years later, some of the original's imagery is still memorable: a child-vampire floating outside a window, begging to be let in, a scene set in a morgue with a newly animated vampire, Barlow crashing throw a kitchen window, and the final scene involving vampires crawling through the root cellar. I also prefer the Nosferatu-inspired makeup for Kurt Barlow in the original version. The makeup was more feral, animalistic, and primal. Creativity seemed to be wholly missing from Barlow's latest incarnation. Rutger Hauer simply looks like the all-too-familiar count (Dracula), sans cape (yet another example of a misjudgment by the producers of Salem's Lot). And to be frank, Hauer is simply too old and overweight to play the Prince of Darkness.

Postscript: a short trip to the local bookstore revealed that the first-person voice-over narration that opens and closes the TNT adaptation of "Salem's Lot" does not exist in the novel. While King's novel does include a prologue and an epilogue, he utilizes them as framing devices for the bulk of the novel, which unfolds as limited third-person narration. The prologue and epilogue in King's novel, however, are substantively different to what Filardi and Salomon provided viewers in this adaptation.

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originally posted: 08/28/05 09:14:32
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User Comments

1/22/18 Steve Who the hell is Matt Pierce? 3 stars
1/15/06 tatum Better than Hooper's mess 4 stars
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  20-Jun-2004 (NR)
  DVD: 12-Oct-2004

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